Supreme Court Hears Arguments Today In After-School Evangelism Case

February 28, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–In the first key church-state case to come before the Supreme Court since a landmark religious liberties ruling last year, the Justices today will consider whether a public school properly excluded an outside religious club that wanted to use school facilities just minutes after the conclusion of the school day.

“An elementary school student is unlikely to perceive any separation at all between church and state when religious instruction takes place in the school building immediately after the final school bell,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief along with its New York affiliate and other groups that support religious liberty.

In its landmark ruling last year, Santa Fe v. Doe, the Justices ruled in a 6-3 decision that public schools cannot let students lead stadium crowds in prayer over the public address system before high school football games. The case originated out of Texas.

Today’s case began when an upstate New York school district denied a request in 1996 by the Good News Club, a self-described religious group, to use the school facilities.

In denying the Club’s request, the Milford school district said the meetings amounted to worship and that permission to use the school, even after hours, violated not only school policy but the United States Constitution.

In its legal brief, the ACLU agreed and said that, given the facts of this case, particularly the young age of the children involved, the school district properly concluded that allowing religious instruction immediately after the school day would be perceived as an official endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. Two lower courts agreed, leading to today’s appeal.

School district officials pointed out that an Equal Access Law, which allows religious groups the same access to public schools that other groups have, provided the groups are student-led, have no significant adult participation and occur in junior high or middle schools. None of those conditions apply here.

The closely watched case comes before the court as President Bush is pushing a new initiative to give tax dollars to religious organizations. The ACLU has said that the initiative would lead to government-funded discrimination in employment and services and a dangerous loosening of licensing and standards for providers of social services.

“Religious belief and expression is flourishing in our country precisely because America has avoided the mistakes of other countries and resisted the temptation for the government to endorse religion,” Shapiro said.

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